Navigating the Criminal Law Procedure in the UK: An Overview

By June 12, 2024 Criminal Law
Criminal Law

Many of us will find ourselves dealing with the criminal law at some point in our lives, whether it is because we are trying to protect our driver’s licence, because our dog has bitten someone or for a whole host of other possible reasons. Understanding  the criminal law procedure in the UK allows individuals to  protect their rights make informed decisions and increase the possibility of ensuring a favourable outcome.

In this blog, we will simplify the complexities of the UK legal landscape and equip you with the knowledge you need to navigate the criminal justice process with confidence.

Reporting and Investigation

Reporting and investigation are critical stages of the UK criminal law procedure as they set the foundation for any subsequent legal proceedings and the pursuit of justice.

1. Reporting a crime – we are criminal defence solicitors- this paragraph is written from the point of view of the victim of crime so is not appropriate to what we do If you have witnessed or been involved in a crime, you can report the incident to the authorities by calling 999 for emergencies or 101 for non-emergencies. You can also report it online.

After receiving the report, the police are obliged to provide you with some vital information:

  •       Written confirmation of the crime report
  •       Crime reference number
  •       Contact details of the police officer handling your case
  •       What you should do next and how often the police will provide updates about the investigation

2. Police investigation

In the initial stage of the investigation, the police will consider a number of factors including  the victim’s vulnerability, the severity of the offence and the availability of evidence to build a case, such as witnesses or CCTV footage.

To complete the initial investigation, the police will gather accounts from victims and witnesses, address their immediate needs and, if applicable, examine the crime scene and seize items involved in the commission of the offence. They will also take prompt action to establish crucial facts, preserve evidence and expedite a resolution. Once the initial investigation has been concluded, the police will either close the case or seek to pursue the matter further.

3. Closing the case

Once a case has been closed, there will usually be no further investigations. However, if new evidence emerges, the police may decide to reopen the case and notify the victim and any material witnesses. If this does happen, investigating officers will be assigned to the case. If a suspect has been identified, they may be arrested or they may be invited to attend the police station on a voluntary basis to be questioned about the allegation. All suspects are  treated and questioned according to Code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. If there is insufficient evidence to charge the individual concerned, the police must take “no further action” and close the case. Often the investigation can take many months to finalise which will result in the suspect being released on police bail (often with conditions imposed upon the suspect) or being simply released until the investigation concludes which is knows as being “released under investigation.

If you are suspected of committing a crime and are being detained at a police station, it is extremely important that you understand your rights, as outlined below.

a. Right to information

If you are detained at the police station , you should receive a written notice of your rights and entitlements in a language you can understand. This notice will explain your fundamental rights and what to expect while being held in police custody. The police should also inform you as to the reason for your arrest.They must caution you that while you do not have to say anything, it may harm your defence if you choose not to mention something during questioning and later rely on it as evidence in court and that anything you do say may be used in evidence against you.

b. Right to inform people

Except in certain circumstances, you have the right to inform one person about your arrest and location as soon as you arrive at the police station. In addition, you also have the right to make a telephone call or send a letter. However, it is important to remember that anything you communicate at this time is not confidential and may be used against you at a later date.

c. Right to a solicitor

Every person who is interviewed at a police station has the right to free legal advice, which can be from a solicitor of their choice or, if they do not have a solicitor, there will be a duty solicitor available to assist them. Asking to see a solicitor is not an admittance of any wrongdoing and you should not hesitate to make such a request. Furthermore, even if you have initially declined the option of speaking to a solicitor, you can change your mind at any point in time. The solicitor will obtain disclosure of the evidence against you from the police and advise you of your options in interview.  They will be present throughout the interview to ensure that your legal rights are protected.

Charging and Prosecution

The next phase of the criminal law procedure in the UK involves charging and prosecution. When there is a reasonable likelihood of securing a conviction, the decision to charge a suspect rests with the police, a prosecuting authority or, in some cases, a private entity. Although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is typically responsible for making these decisions, other agencies also have the legal authority to initiate prosecutions based on the particular circumstances of the case.

1. Police charges

The police can charge a suspect directly if they have committed a lower-level offence. For example:

  •       Any summary offence, including those where the value of the criminal damage is less than £5,000
  •       Any offence of retail theft or attempted retail theft that can be dealt with by a Magistrates’ Court
  •       Any either-way offence where the defendant is likely to plead guilty and can be sentenced in a Magistrates’ Court

2. CPS and public prosecutions

The Code for Crown Prosecutors outlines the guiding principles for public prosecutors when making case decisions. To proceed with a public prosecution, prosecutors must satisfy the Full Code Test, which comprises two parts:

  •       Evidential Test – determines whether there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction in relation to each suspect and charge
  •       Public Interest Test – considers factors such as the severity of the offence, the level of culpability of the suspect and the overall harm caused

 If the required evidence is not immediately available when the time comes for a suspect to be charged or released, the prosecutors can follow the lower Threshold Test. This test provides a legal basis whereby the police can hold the suspect on a temporary basis while the evidence is being obtained.

3. Private prosecutions

Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 upholds the right of individuals to initiate and conduct criminal proceedings, allowing for private prosecutions by any individual or organisation. This provision enables entities such as the RSPCA and Royal Mail to bring forth criminal charges.

However, there are limitations, including the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to take control of private prosecutions under section 6(2) of the same act. Furthermore, in some instances, the private prosecutor may need to obtain consent from the Attorney General or the DPP before initiating proceedings.

4. Out-of-court disposals

As an alternative to a prosecution, the police have the option to utilise out-of-court disposals  for minor offences. These disposals include simple cautions, conditional cautions, penalty notices for disorder (PNDs) and cannabis warnings.

Each option comes with specific guidelines and procedures designed to provide appropriate resolutions depending on the type of offence and the offender in question. This approach allows the police to deal with low-level offences while efficiently diverting cases away from the courts.

The UK Court System

Depending on the severity and/or circumstances, criminal cases are heard either in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. Youth cases involving defendants aged 10–17 are handled by Youth Courts, which operate similarly to Magistrates’ Courts.

1. Criminal courts

All cases begin in the Magistrates Court but thereafter, certain cases may be sent to the Crown Court. Offences are categorised into three types based on their severity:

  •       Summary only offences – lower-level offences that can only be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court (e.g. speeding, common assault, driving with excess alcohol)
  •       Either way offences – these are cases that can be dealt with in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court (e.g. theft, assault occasioning actual bodily harm and dangerous driving). The magistrates may decide the case is too serious for them to deal with and send it to the Crown Court. if they accept jurisdiction of the case, the defendant has a choice of whether he would like his case dealt with in the Crown Court or the Magistrates’ Court.
  •       Indicatable only offences – these are the most serious offences and must be tried in the Crown Court (e.g. robbery, murder and conspiracy)

If a defendant pleads not guilty to an offence, their case will be set down for trial at a later date. On the other hand, if a defendant pleads guilty, they may be sentenced immediately or their case may be adjourned for a pre-sentence report to be prepared by the National Probation Service. The pre-sentence report will contain information about the defendant and a recommendation as to the sentence. With either-way offences, the court has the option to send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

2. Seeking legal representation

If you have been accused of a crime, you can choose to represent yourself in court or ask the duty solicitor to represent you. The duty solicitor will represent you free of charge, provided you are charged with an imprisonable offence and you have not already used the services of the duty solicitor in connection with that offence on a previous occasion. Alternatively, you may wish to instruct your own solicitor to attend court to represent you on either a private or legal aid basis. To be eligible for legal aid, your case must be serious enough to merit it and you must also be financially eligible.

At Wheldon Law we represent clients on both a private and legal aid basis. We will obtain a copy of the prosecution papers in advance of the court hearing and will be happy to meet with you in advance of the court hearing to discuss your case in detail and advise you regarding the law, the strength of the evidence and possible outcomes.

3. Court proceedings

In England and Wales, all trials follow the Criminal Procedure Rules which govern each stage of the criminal court process. In a Magistrates’ Court, a trial is presided over by two or three magistrates or a district judge who are assisted by a qualified legal advisor. These trials are referred to as summary trials.

Meanwhile, trials in the Crown Court involve a jury of 12 individuals randomly selected from the electoral register. The judge provides guidance to the jury throughout the case, and it is their responsibility to reach a verdict regarding the defendant’s guilt or otherwise. Parties involved in the case may sometimes have the ability to vet or object to the selection of a particular jury member.

Any court has the authority to suspend or “stay” proceedings if it determines that there has been an abuse of the process that would affect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. This power allows the court to intervene and prevent the continuation of proceedings if it deems that the fairness of the trial would be compromised.


If a defendant is found not guilty, they are free to leave the court immediately after the hearing. However, if they are found guilty, they are convicted of the crime and it becomes the responsibility of the judge or magistrate to determine and impose an appropriate punishment for the relevant offence.

1. Discharge

Discharges can be absolute or conditional. An absolute discharge means that no sentence is being imposed by the court. A conditional discharge will be for a period of up to three years. It also means that the defendant will not be punished for the offence, provided they do not commit any new offence during the period of the discharge. They could also be re-sentenced for the current offence, as well as any sentence imposed for the new offence.

 2. Fine

Fines are calculated depending on the severity of the committed offence and the amount the individual can be expected to pay.

3. Community sentence

Community sentences include requiring offenders to perform unpaid work in the community and participate in programmes and treatment services to address personal issues and reduce the likelihood of re-offending. A curfew may also be imposed.

4. Custodial sentence

Custodial sentences are reserved for the most severe offences and are only imposed when the crime is deemed so serious that it cannot be addressed by a fine or a community sentence alone. Such sentences may be necessary to ensure public protection. The duration of the custodial sentence will vary depending on the severity of the offence and the maximum penalty prescribed by UK law for that particular crime.

A custodial sentence of two years or less can be suspended. This means the defendant does not go to prison, provided they comply with certain requirements and do not re-offend during the period of the suspended sentence.

5. Ancillary orders

Ancillary orders are legal measures or penalties that can be imposed by a court in addition to the primary sentence given to a defendant who has been convicted of a criminal offence. These orders are designed to address specific issues or consequences related to the crime or the offender’s behaviour and prevent future re-offending. Examples of ancillary orders include:

  • Disqualification from driving
  • Disqualification from keeping animals
  • Deprivation order
  • Destruction or contingent destruction orders for dogs
  • Confiscation order
  • Compensation or reparation order

Filing an Appeal

The final stage of the criminal law procedure in the UK involves filing an appeal. However, before going down this route, individuals are strongly advised to consult a solicitor.

1. Appealing a Magistrates’ Court decision

There is an automatic right of appeal against conviction or sentence from the Magistrates’ Court to the Crown Court. A notice of appeal must be lodged within 21 days of sentencing. Failure to meet this deadline will mean that you will have to seek permission from the Crown Court to proceed with the appeal. Any appeal will be heard by a judge and two lay magistrates.

2. Appealing a Crown Court decision

To appeal against conviction or sentence in the Crown Court, you must apply for leave to appeal. It is not possible to appeal against conviction just because you are not happy with the verdict. There must have been a procedural irregularity with the trial or if your appeal is against the sentence imposed, the sentence must be either wrong in law or manifestly excessive.

The application for leave to appeal must be submitted to the Court of Appeal Criminal Division within 28 days of the date you were convicted or within 28 days of the date you were sentenced if your appeal is against sentence. In certain cases, an extension for a late application may be allowed.

Consult the UK Criminal Law Specialists

Having an understanding of the UK’s criminal law procedure can help you be aware of your legal rights. By equipping yourself with knowledge and working with criminal law specialists such as our team here at Wheldon Law, you can safeguard those  rights and ensure that you avoid any of the potential pitfalls that can befall those less well equipped. (not sure I like my wording here – by all means think of something better)

If you require some expert legal advice, please feel free to contact one of our team here at Wheldon Law. We will be able to provide the legal support and guidance you need to navigate your case and achieve a favourable outcome.